Burnett’s flavorings enjoyed nationwide success and funded prominent Southborough institutions

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Burnett’s flavorings enjoyed nationwide success and funded prominent Southborough institutions
In 1847, Joseph Burnett developed the first commercially available form of vanilla extract, which sold well into the 1970s. (Photo/courtesy of Southborough Historical Society)

SOUTHBOROUGH – Travelers often enhance their experience by learning the history of a place. They might read stories of the earliest inhabitants, study the art or architecture, or become familiar with the food. 

A destination is frequently associated with a particular flavor: cumin in Morocco, rosemary in the Mediterranean or sourdough in San Francisco. 

Anyone exploring Southborough’s history will quickly encounter the Burnett family and vanilla extract. The fortune this flavor produced helped shape the character of the town.

Joseph Burnett, born in 1820, showed early promise as a chemist and pharmacist. After studying at Worcester College of Pharmacy, Burnett joined Theodore Metcalf’s Boston-based apothecary business as a clerk at the age of 17. Metcalf and the talented young man eventually formed a partnership, and in 1845, Metcalf transferred the business to him. 

In 1847, Burnett developed the first commercially available form of vanilla extract. Ten years later, he formed Joseph Burnett & Co. and went on to create a line of flavorings used in cooking and baking, including almond, rose, lemon, nectarine and peach. Burnett’s Vanilla Extract, popular for its purity, sold well into the 1970s.

Burnett’s flavorings enjoyed nationwide success and funded prominent Southborough institutions
Southborough’s rural character owes much to Joseph Burnett, chemist, farmer, and innovator, and to his innovative production of vanilla extract. (Photo/courtesy of Southborough Historical Society)

With the wealth generated by Burnett & Co., Burnett built a large stone mansion at the corner of Deerfoot Road and Main Street, where he and his wife, Josephine, raised their family of 12.

He established Deerfoot Farms, producing dairy and pork products. Commercial production of Deerfoot sausage began in 1871 and became a favorite across the country. It remained popular for decades and the Southborough product was even included in the Roosevelt White House holiday menus.

Burnett was more than a businessperson and innovator. 

He had a strong interest in his community and established the first Episcopal church in town as well as St. Mark’s School. A drive down Main Street today leads past his magnificent mansion, saved from demolition by high school students in 2014 and meticulously restored by its current owner. At the town center, St. Mark’s Church and St. Mark’s School are thriving today. 

Southborough’s rural character owes much to Burnett – chemist, farmer, and innovator – and to his innovative production of vanilla extract.

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